The Dyers – Danny and Dani – and Jo Brand are the marquee names in this revival of the Debbie Isitt musical based on a popular film series, but they are not exactly forced to work overtime. Rather, the show’s success rests on the energy of Simon Lipkin, who might have stepped straight out of School of Rock in his role as an effervescent teacher, and on a platoon of all-singing, all-dancing kids.
Infectiously enjoyable as the show is, I had a few cavils. It rests on the premise that a musicalised nativity, presented by an underperforming Coventry primary school, would attract the attention of a Hollywood producer. I know it’s a fairytale but it suggests the ultimate test of worth is validation by movie moguls and that the aim of life, as the kids raucously sing, is to be “rich and famous”.
There is also something rather calculating about importating showbiz celebrities. Dyer père, who makes an unusually Hackneyesque Hollywood producer, at one point asks his daughter, Dani: “Who pays for you to go to a Spanish island to try and find a boyfriend?” At least the pair get to sing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” whereas Brand, as a Midlands theatre critic, is about as central to proceedings as Mesut Özil is to the current Arsenal team.
But Isitt’s songs, co-written with Nicky Ager, and production are both full of attack and the show bounces merrily along. Even if he overdoes the less-than-fulsome comments on figures such as David Walliams and Charlotte Church, Lipkin has a formidable comic charm as a childlike supply teacher and effectively motors proceedings.
Scott Garnham as a more orthodox colleague, who dresses in various shades of grey, and Ashleigh Graham, stepping into the role of his onetime girlfriend who goes to Hollywood, are perfectly good and the children, especially in the set-piece numbers choreographed by Andrew Wright, suggest we have a limitless supply of showbiz kids.
The musical, which started life at Birmingham Rep, is certainly a family-friendly affair and proves there are many worse things in life than being sent to Coventry.
At the Eventim Apollo, London, until 31 December. Then touring.